What is it that drives some novels to the top of the commercial sales charts while other books wallow in poor sales rankings? What makes a blockbuster? Great writing? Maybe not.
A while back I published a blog, Bringing the Curtain Down, in which I speculated on when and why the author of a thriller series should call it a day and wrap it up. In the article, I mentioned that the writer, Lee Child, was about to publish his 22nd Jack Reacher novel, Midnight Line. Well that’s now history and #23, Past Tense, will be available in November 2018; great news for Lee Child, his publisher and for Jack Reacher fans the world over.
After I’d written the piece it occurred to me that I’d never read a Jack Reacher novel. And as Lee Child is an apex novelist, with his Jack Reacher Series a world block-busting top seller, I decided it was time to correct that anomaly and find out what all the fuss was about. I’d join the crowd and read me some Jack Reacher.
I headed into downtown Chiang Mai, to The Lost Book Shop, my favorite bookstore, and picked up five Jack Reacher paperbacks: Killing Floor, The Hard Way, One Shot, Bad Luck And Trouble and Make Me. Second hand, they were cheap but in good condition. Back home, I got into them.
I began with Killing Floor, the first in the series. Written in the 1st person, the story-line was sound and fairly exciting. But, like many of today’s novels, I found it inflated and overweight. My edition weighed in at 525 pages. I believe that good comprehensive editing would have cut it down to 350 or even less and delivered a tighter, far more dynamic book.
Next up was The Hard Way followed by Bad Luck And Trouble. Both were disappointing and, in my view, poorly written and edited and with awful punctuation. Written in the 3rd person, I surprised at the banality of it. I found the narrative staccato, awkward and packed with redundant sentences and way too much description of people and places. So many sentences lack verbs. And for me the abundance of one-word sentences and even one-word paragraphs was painful. If I had submitted this stuff to an agent I would, no doubt, have received an immediate rejection slip. I then read Make Me and felt the same. I had started reading Kill Shot when I picked up a copy of Personal which, like Killing Floor, is written in the 1st person. It was okay and I enjoyed it to an extent. I never went back to Kill Shot. And I stopped reading Lee Child.
Giving it thought, it seems as if the series has been written by two different writers. And in a way that’s true. In the 3rd person novels, Lee Child tells the tale. In the 1st person stories, there are six, Child hands the pen to Jack Reacher. And Reacher delivers the better book.
Writing in the first person allows a writer a free hand, a chance to break loose from many grammar and syntax constraints and speak just as he feels through the medium of his narrator as Mark Twain did with Huckleberry Finn. The language can be crude or elegant. The narrator may be a gentle Dr. Jekyll or a brutal Mr. Hyde. The character of the protagonist is revealed through the narrative tone. And, naturally, Jack Reacher, the loner, the rugged individualistic drifter couldn’t care less about the niceties of English grammar and good prose as he tells his tale. Right?
This freedom, I feel, is one reason many writers choose to write in the 1st person. The 3rd person narrative is a more difficult arena with law and order and rules of engagement to which the omniscient narrator should adhere or face the consequences. Some writers can switch and write well in both. On the evidence, Child isn’t one of them. Lee Child is a free-wheeling writer who has completely rejected the discipline of grammatical rules and guidelines. I believe he should have stayed in the 1st person for the entire series. And that way he could have blamed Jack Reacher for any crude and vulgar anomalies.
The old advice “show, don’t tell” is sound advice. “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” (Chekhov). It was at the core of Hemingway’s ‘iceberg theory of omission.’ I believe it also reveals a writer’s respect for his reader. Of course, a good writer utilizes both; he shows and also tells. Lee Child prefers to tell not show. And it shows.
The lack of editing in Lee Child’s novels is chronic. You come across many unedited self-published books on Amazon, where lots of publications are not even self-edited. But Lee Child’s novels come from a publishing house. So why didn’t his publishers set their editors to work and rein him in? Could be that now he’s so established, they leave him be. In an interview, he once commented that his editors are “afraid to piss me off.” Really?
Lee Child seems to be a nice guy. He had setbacks and overcame them. I admire that, and his consequent success has to be applauded. I feel sure I’d enjoy a good chat and a few beers with him. In interviews, he’s open and honest. He’s said he’s not out to seek prizes; his aim is to deliver entertainment; his way. And this he does, and his books sell like freshly baked bread in a famine. But how come? What gives?
A long time ago, ‘back in the day’, I had a sweet Toronto girlfriend. Clare was well read. She loved good books, and her bookshelf revealed a catholic taste in its mix of classics and contemporary writers. She’d read George Eliot’s Middlemarch in college and wrote an essay on it. She admired a host of fine writers and poets. But she loved Harold Robbins.
Robbins was, and is, one of the best-selling writers of all time, he penned over 25 best-sellers, selling over 750 million copies worldwide in 32 languages.
Under pressure from Clare, and to please her, I got into him starting with The Carpetbaggers. I moved on to A Stone for Danny Fisher and on and on. I didn’t read the whole Robbins corpus but more than a few. And yes I enjoyed them though I didn’t rate him too highly as a writer. Just like Lee Child, Robbins wrote as he liked. It seemed he’d never heard of the ‘point of view’ rule, so quite often you didn’t know which character was thinking what.
One day, Clare was lying back on her couch flipping the pages of Robbins’ latest, The Adventurers. I teased her. I told her I thought Robbins wasn’t much of writer; a crappy one, really. I expanded on that and she agreed. “You’re right, Tony,” she said, laughing.
“You agree?” I said, surprised.
“Yes,” she nodded. “I agree.”
“Yet you read him?”
“Yes,” She smiled. “It’s crazy I know. I can’t explain it, but I just can’t out him down.”
Rick Gekowski is a writer, broadcaster, rare book dealer and former Senior Lecturer in English at Warwick University. In 2011 he held the Chair of Judges for the 2011 Man Booker International Prize for Fiction. The Guardian newspaper once stated that “Gekowski likes to be around a better class of book than the rest of us.” Impressive, right?
Yet, in an article published in The Guardian, Gekowski came out of the closet and confessed to being a Jack Reacher junkie who can’t wait to get his hands on the latest Lee Child novel and devour it. It’s a bit like discovering that a world-renowned cordon bleu chef secretly sneaks out in disguise to a motorway transport café to nosh down on greasy burgers and fries loaded with red sauce.
In his article, Gekowski admits that, “… no one, I imagine, values Child for the quality of his prose. One can hardly find, in the entire corpus of the work, a single sentence worthy of independent admiration.” Yet, like Clare with Robbins, he can’t put Lee Child down.
One critic accused Child of writing ‘dreck’; a tad hard, but true. In my view, Child’s prose is dull, awkward, overwritten and uninspiring. In comparison with Lee Child, Harold Robbins was a disciplined literary genius. For me, as a writer, Child is bloody awful and the Jack Reacher series is bad writing in essence. An English teacher might well use it in class to demonstrate what NOT to do. But does it ever sell! Over 70 million worldwide. Plus all those Amazon downloads. Wow. But how? It sure beats the hell out of me.
Here’s a question I ask myself. Would the Jack Reacher Series be the success it is if it were well-written and thoroughly edited? And the answer? Probably not.
Lee Child is a Brit, English and well educated. He speaks Shakespeare’s tongue. So I must assume his bad writing and lack of respect for English is somewhat deliberate. Quite obviously there exists a vast market out there for this stuff, and Child, with the full compliance of his publisher and their tame editors, is delivering the dreck it wants. And getting rich in the process. It seems his readers not only don’t care, it appears they even love his literary dross. It’s probably another publishing house conspiracy. But for me, it’s another sad reflection on the dumbing-down of Western civilization.
Writing ability was the first to fall. Think of those university graduates who can’t compose a simple job application letter and need to hire professionals to do it. Now it seems the ability to read well is withering away.
So there you have it. Bad writing sells; big time. But I don’t advise going there. It’s a swamp. A Quagmire. Lee Child was lucky; chances are you won’t be. Keep your feet on solid ground and stick with good writing? It also sells though not in such a frenzy as the Jack Reacher stuff. But don’t lose heart. Respect the English language. It’s great, rugged and virile, with a body of literature behind it that has no equal. Use it well and write your best. And make every word count.
Jack Reacher is becoming a small industry. Apart from the movies, with Tom Cruise in the greatest piece of miscasting in cinematic history, there’s now a Jack Reacher online game. And for that morning cuppa, Jack Reacher Custom Coffee is available: ‘Robust. Full Bodied. Battle Tested’ plus a matching coffee mug to drink it from.